Book Review: The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins

The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins: The Life and Legacy That Shaped an American CityThe Ghosts of Johns Hopkins: The Life and Legacy That Shaped an American City by Antero Pietila

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really wanted to love this book. As a current Johns Hopkins graduate student, I spent two weeks in 2018 traveling around Baltimore getting to know its history and its people. I learned so much as a student and I was thrilled to grab an advanced copy of this book in hopes of learning a bit more about the city and the history of the university that calls Baltimore home. Alas, it was not to be.

It’s difficult to write a book about a man who destroyed all of his papers and correspondence. I get that. However, Antero Pietila tries to cover a Johns Hopkins the man, Johns Hopkins the University, and Johns Hopkins as the city of Baltimore. It’s just too great a swath of time and place to discuss well. Rather than a succinct history of a person, place, or time, Pietila has left us with a rambling narrative that only briefly touches on Johns Hopkins the man but also highlights struggles in funding a university, Civil War strife, grave robbing, building various railroads, race riots, mobs, and more. It’s incredibly difficult to follow as time jumps from the 1700s to the 1920s to the 1850s and back again. I often wasn’t sure who was being profiled or what century I was even in anymore.

While there are some really interesting bits of information (the part on Arabbers and the history of rent-to-own homes were fascinating) the book is just so difficult to follow and tedious to read that I quickly lost interest. For those who have an intimate knowledge of Baltimore, very little in the book will be a revelation. Most importantly, this book isn’t really about Johns Hopkins at all but an overarching view of the history of the university with a greater focus on the city of Baltimore.

It’s not often that I don’t finish a book, particularly an advanced copy, but this one is going to sit on the “to finish” shelf for a bit longer.


Book Review: The Royal Art of Poison

The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most FoulThe Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Who doesn’t love a good murder mystery set in the beauty and wonder of the Renaissance?

The Royal Art of Poison was disgusting, horrifying, creepy, nasty, and just plain delightful! Full disclosure: I’m a history nerd and a true crime geek (who knew, right?!) and this book fed my love of both. Eleanor Herman starts off with a brief history of poison and there was a lot of it in ancient times. Not just poisons like deadly nightshade but common household items, like makeup and even medicine, with full of arsenic and mercury! Not only was poison a common fear, but the sanitation levels were dismal. If it wasn’t the disease killing you, it was the mercury enemas.

Following the history lesson, each chapter tells the tale of a different historical figure who died under mysterious circumstances. Herman presents the reader with a case study for each, telling the reader about the person’s marriage, the times in which they lived, and the symptoms they presented with prior to their death. Then the reader is left to ponder, did the person die because of poison or were they just unlucky? Never fear, the reader isn’t left hanging! Herman then presents the formal diagnosis along with medical records (if there are any) and the fallout in the event of an actual poisoning.

Eleanor Herman is an historian by training making her books well-researched tales complimented by her vast knowledge. Nonfiction books have the potential to be wordy and difficult to read but Herman’s books are easy to digest, even when the subject matter isn’t. A must read for any history nerd, lover of the macabre, or true crime buff.

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the BardoLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lincoln in the Bardo is a good book — but you have to be ready for it. George Saunders has taken a novel and made it just that, novel. It’s part poem, part history text and entirely complicated and moving at the same time. Readers need to prepared for the odd writing style, the numerous characters, and the constantly changing voices. However, if given the chance, the book is phenomenal.

Let’s talk premise first: Lincoln in the Bardo takes place over the course of one heart-wrenching night following the burial of William Wallace Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln’s third, and favorite, son. Willie died suddenly of typhoid fever just as the Civil War is ramping up in the United States. The story takes place “in the Bardo” which is a Buddhist term for the space between life and death, essentially the purgatory of the Christian world. Over the course of the night, many spirits appear to help young Willie on his new venture into the afterlife and we hear how each ghost ended up in their current state, some are luckier than others. In between conversations in the cemetery, Saunders intersperses actual bits of history from contemporary sources who recount the events leading up to Willie’s death. The overall narrative is alternatively emotional and humorous.

Here’s where things get tricky. The form. This isn’t your typical novel written with sentences that build paragraphs that turn into a book. Rather, it reads more like a screenplay with the character announced in italics followed by their lines in the next below. Historical sources are cited appropriately often reading as follows:

“The rich notes of the Marine Band in the apartments below came to the sick-room in soft, subdued murmurs, like the wild, faint sobbing of far off spirits.” Keckley, op. cit.

It’s a very avant-garde style of writing that makes the book difficult to follow. I found myself wondering “who’s that guy again?” or “wait — how did he die?” Towards the end of the book things start to get a little bit muddled as the narrative veers into the reflective and meditative and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about that.

Overall, the book was worth the confusion because it made me think and it threw me out of my comfort zone. I can’t recommend this book enough (with the disclaimer that it’s really not going to be everyone’s cup of tea).

Book Review: Ticker

Ticker: The Quest to Create an Artificial HeartTicker: The Quest to Create an Artificial Heart by Mimi Swartz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The person who comes up with a way to replace a failing heart with an artificial one, then, will save countless lives and change the future of humankind, much as Louis Pasteur or Sigmund Freud did, or Jonas Salk or Marie Curie. And, of course, the doctor or engineer (or, more likely, the team) who figures out how to make one will likely become very, very rich.”

This is what we are presented with in Ticker: The Quest to Create an Artificial Heart by Mimi Swartz. The book tells the sordid history of a group of surgeons all vying to become the god-like creator of the first artificial heart. Swartz is a stunning and detailed researcher and the book flows well throughout the decades. She starts with the birth of Michael Debakey and Denton Cooley as the “bad boys: of cardiac surgery in Houston. From there, Swartz takes the reader on the stunning and sometimes vaguely unethical battle to be the best, to beat the competition, and to cash in for as much money as humanly possible. My only disappointment is that the book just seemed to end with no conclusion. That could be due to the unfinished tale of the artificial heart but it still could have wrapped up a bit better in my opinion.

I had some knowledge going into the book as my husband’s uncle was on the ground floor of Baylor’s race to be the best in cardiac care but much of the information was new to me. Readers who have grown up in Houston will know the cast of characters and possibly even the history of the cardiac teams that come into play. This book is not for the faint of heart, however. These are real people that have been used as guinea pigs and sometimes, that’s disheartening and upsetting. Know going into it that the early days of heart surgery were akin to the Wild West and not everyone was on the up-and-up.

*I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.*

Book Review: Patient H.M.

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family SecretsPatient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was nothing short of amazing. I’m extremely interested in neuroscience and the history of the lobotomy — this book was the perfect intersection. Having read several books on memory and lobotomies, I was already familiar with the case of H.M. but this book explored who H.M. was as a person which was never allowed to enter into the scientific case studies.

Author Luke Dittrich writes from a very personal place since it was his own grandfather, Dr. Scoville, who performed the lobotomy on Patient H.M. and so many others, including his severely ill wife. In that sense, Dittrich often comes across at angry and occasionally petulant in his desire to defend all the good that his grandfather did while also mourning the horrors inflicted on unsuspecting patients.

This book is also raises important questions regarding medical and scientific ethics. The woman “in charge” of H.M.’s care during the final years of his life, was the woman whose career exploded into the limelight thanks to her research on H.M.. She also assigned H.M.’s guardian who was a man who was not at all invested in his care. This “scientist” closely guarded her own research and access to H.M. to keep others from learning more about the enigmatic patient. Dittrich also brought to light the possibility that research data might have been falsified. However, we’ll never know since she destroyed nearly all the records and test data prior to her death.

As an avid reader of science and history books, this was a wonderful read. Dittrich brings in enough science to keep those in the field engaged but he also makes it approachable for the causal reader. Writing from a very personal space, Dittrich brings to life the wonderful man known to most only as H.M.. Dittrich balances his disdain for his grandfather’s procedures with facts, figures, and light-hearted tales of growing up as Dr. Scoville’s grandson. Patient H.M. is an important tale of science gone awry and the dangers of being on the bleeding edge of medicine.